Guildpact: Gruul Wilding Review (Part 1 of 2)
As mentioned in the review of Code of the Orzhov, Ravnica block was the first full block to break from the evolutionary style we associate with most Magic releases. Ordinarily, you had a story in three acts, with a stage-setting for the opening large set, and two follow-on expansions that move the tale towards its dramatic conclusion. In some cases, a larger narrative has strung multiple blocks together, most notably with the Rath Cycle (which connected blocks from Mirage through Invasion) but also with smaller arcs like the Odyssey/Onslaught blocks. For the guild-based Ravnica block, the sense of forward progression was gone, leaving Wizards needing to rely upon other ways to retain a sense of advancement across the card pool.
One of the ways they chose to do this- and most effectively- was through the heavy use of cycles. Cycles are a series of cards that share a common, connective theme. That connection can take any number of shapes, and be across any number of cards, but in general it takes a common core element and casts it through the lenses of different colours or tribes. One of the game’s earliest cycles was the a cycle of one-mana noncreature spells that gave you three of something, one for each colour. When today we look at Ancestral Recall, Lightning Bolt, Healing Salve, Dark Ritual, and Giant Growth, it’s not always obvious that they’re connected, but over time cycles have tended to become quite a bit more obvious- for instance, the Titan cycle of Magic 2011/2012.
Cycles played a critical role in defining the ten guilds across the block’s three sets. Unlike the three-of-something cycle noted above, these were quite obvious- indeed, by using a common archetype as applied to each different guild, they helped to highlight just how that guild was different from the others. By beginning with a common element of sameness, then, Wizards was able to provide a tremendous degree of distinctiveness for each. Some of these cycles filled a role and were little different from another- the “Ravnica duals” all do the same thing as one another, differing only in the colours of mana they provide (same with the Signets). That contrasts with the uncommon land cycle of “Guild Houses.” For today’s guild, the wild and untamed Gruul, this was found in Skarrg, the Rage Pits, which reflect their aggression by offering a power pump and trample. Orzhova, the Church of Deals ties right in with that guild’s bleeder objectives, as we saw with the previous deck. The Izzet, a guild that loves their instants and sorceries, gets to go fishing for extras with theirs.
Another cycle involved cards that granted you an additional effect if you used the right colour of mana to cast it. Consider the Gruul Scrapper, a Green creature, but only by playing the other Gruul colour (Red) can you unlock its full potential. We saw this as well with the Orzhov’s Shrieking Grotesque, which could force a discard from your opponent’s hand at no additional cost if you simply used Black mana in playing that White creature. In both cases, you’ll note that the ability granted reflects the extra colour needed for the full effect (Red for haste, Black for discard). Subtle touches like this one could quietly reinforce each guild’s strategies and mechanical identity.
Far less subtle were the guild legends, both the guildmasters as well as a particularly notable henchman. The guild leaders were designed to be the ultimate specimens of their respective guild, with powers and abilities that advanced the general strategic path each guild walks. Borborygmos is the Gruul leader, and not only is he of massive size but he also dishes out +1/+1 counters like they were candy to his followers whenever he happens to get in for damage on a player. The Ghost Council of Orzhova pack a repeatable bleed atop a spectral body that can be frustratingly difficult to kill. Meanwhile, the henchmen have abilities that tie into the guild’s colours, like Ulasht, the Hate Seed and Circu, Dimir Lobotomist.
A little further down the ranks, we get to the last area of significant differentiation through a common root element in the guildmages. Guildmages were first introduced in Mirage block, and were Wizards that carried with them two different activated abilities, one for each of their primary colour’s allied colours. Thus the Blue Shaper Guildmage had abilities that reflected its White (first strike) and Black (power pump) aspects. The Ravnican models have carried forward the two-ability tradition, but instead they are each activated by a different one of the guild’s two colours.
The final “cycle” was the guild’s unique mechanics themselves. Each of the ten different guilds carried with them a distinct mechanical keyword which helped reinforce their core identity and advance their strategy. For any player who ever opened a pack of Magic 2012, the Gruul’s ability should be immediately familiar- bloodthirst. This ability lets you play a creature with one or more +1/+1 counters on it if you happened to damage your opponent already in the turn. For the aggressively-minded Gruul, this is music to the ears. Not only that, but bloodthirst cleverly exerts a subtle influence over its players, leading them to a playstyle right in line with the guild’s own philosophy- attack early and often, and good things will happen. With that in mind, we ready ourselves to examine Gruul Wilding.
When you think of a Red/Green deck, what are the characteristics that come to mind? Fatties? Sure, what’s a stompy deck without some expensive, high-power creatures to crush your opponent? Ramping, to make sure you can squeeze that fat out onto the board early. Burn, definitely burn, to help keep the lanes clear for your beaters and blast your opponent with. Combat tricks? Absolutely! It always helps to keep your opponents off-balance and guessing when tallying up blocking assignments.
Surprise! Gruul Wilding takes exactly one of these to heart, and a look at the deck’s mana curve doesn’t leave much doubt as to which one of these it is. Sure there’s a token combat trick (a singleton Wildsize), but that’s it. No burn spells. And, most critically, no ramp (again outwith a singleton card, this one a Wild Cantor). Instead, Gruul Wilding in some ways more resmbles a Green/White deck with a generous serving of creature auras, letting you build up your existing forces and solve your problems in the red zone. As we’ll see, this is by no means a certainty.
The deck opens with the aforementioned Wild Cantor alongside a Scorched Rusalka. Had the Rusalka’s ability been extended to creatures, you might forgive the lack of burn in the deck, but this is more of a closing ability than a utility one. The Wild Cantor, on the other hand, is a one-shot mana dose of mana, useful for powering out a closer in a pinch but little else.
Moving on to the two-drops, we find a rare bit of evasion in the Dryad Sophisticate. Given that all of the Ravnica block precons come equipped with nonbasic land, it’s an ability that will never struggle long for relevance. The same can largely be said of the Sparkmage Apprentice. This is a card that is highly conditional in a vacuum- a 1-point ping is very hit and miss depending on what you’re up against- but as a bloodthirst support becomes considerably stronger. This gives you much greater discretion in being able to play your bloodthirst creatures, such as the Scab-Clan Mauler, when you want to rather than being subject to whatever defense your opponent is fielding.
Next up is the Gruul Guildmage, the representative of the guild’s Guildmage cycle mentioned above. This Guildmage’s two abilities give you some added burn options, though again we find the ability restricted to targeting players. There’s also a repeatable creature pump on offer, though at four mana you’ll not be repeating it often. Finally, you have a pair of Gatherer of Graces, the first creature thus far that’s designed to work in an aura-centric shell. The Graces looks to overcome the traditional risk of card disadvantage by giving you some extra mileage out of auras attached to it, letting you trade one in to regenerate the Gatherer as needed. If this brings totem armor to mind, you’re not alone.
A pair of Bloodscale Prowlers constitute the entirely of your three-drops, 3/1′s that can become 4/2′s if you’ve managed to blood your opponent in the same turn before casting them. A Burning-Tree Bloodscale leads us into the deck’s four-drops, another Viashino with bloodthirst. In addition, this one lets you play around with blocking assignments, including the ability to take out an opposing creature with a targeted Lure effect. The Indentured Oaf is a bit more muscle in the middle, being a straightforward 4/3 with a piddling drawback- at least as far as the Guildpact environment is concerned. The last creature before we hit the top of the curve is the aforementioned Gruul Scrapper. The deck carries two of them, and they’re able to gain haste if Red mana was used to summon them.
Larger still than even the two-drop contingent, the five-and-ups are the single biggest group of creatures the deck has to offer, and in a deck without ramp that’s a worrying concern. It begins with the updated version of the classic Craw Wurm, the Streetbreaker Wurm, a vanilla 6/4 that costs one less mana for needing two colours to play instead of one. A bit smaller is the Bramble Elemental, but like the Gatherer of Graces this is a card built for play in Auras.dec. Rather than letting you regenerate a creature as the Gatherer of Graces did, the card economy for the Elemental comes in the pair of 1/1 Saprolings it spawns for you each time you enchant it. There aren’t a ton of places to put them, but they do make good fodder for your Scorched Rusalka.
A pair of Dowsing Shamans too are custom-fit for this kind of construction. The loss of auras is almost a certainty in this combat-focused deck, and the Shaman gives you a way to get them back from the graveyard into your hand. As a 3/4, they’re no slouch in the red zone either. Moving up a rung, we find the Gruul Nodorog, a 4/4 beater that has an activated blocking restriction. Like the Burning-Tree Bloodscale, this can often be used to pry back your opponent’s defenses to help your other creatures get through for damage, for your opponent risks letting a 4/4 through at their peril.
The last four cards all clock in at a whopping seven mana, and you’ll dread seeing any of them in your opening hand since it means you’ve effectively mulliganed yourself. Though should you manage to play any of them the tide of the game can turn quite suddenly, the lack of ramp options means you’ll often struggle to play them. The Battering Wurm is another bloodthirst creature, and another that can give your opponent some difficulty in blocking. It’s also immune to chumping altogether, so decks filled with smaller creatures like Code of the Orzhov and Izzet Gizmometry will need to answer it another way. Also here are a pair of Skarrgan Skybreakers, with an impressive bloodthirst 3. The Skybreakers almost demand you play them with bloodthirst, since paying seven mana for a 3/3 is a dreadful prospect. A 6/6 is much more palatable- particuarly one that you can pop for a mere one mana and dish out six damage to any target on the board.
Finally, the guild leader makes an appearance with Borborygmos, making Gruul Wilding the only deck of the three in Guildpact to have the guildmaster contained in the deck, and one of the less than half in Ravnica block overall (only the Dimir, Azorius, and Simic decks do so). Borborygmos is direct and unsubtle, just like his guild- he smashes in, and his army gets stronger. With 6 power and trample, the ability is reliable even while casting the card is not. If your opponent can’t kill you off before this guy hits the table, then they deserve what they get.
Of the ten noncreature spells in Gruul Wilding, only one of them isn’t an aura- the deck’s one combat trick (Wildsize). The rest are all auras of varying types, though it does make good use of the Magemark cycle. The Magemarks are a cycle of auras that carry two different abilities, but rather than being limited to the enchanted creature they affect any of your creatures sporting an aura. The first ability is the same across the cycle, a simple +1/+1 bonus to all enchanted creatures you control. The second ability is particular to each particular Magemark. The Beastmaster’s gives a sort of rampage ability that gives your enchanted creatures a boost for each creature blocking them, while the Fencer’s offers all of your enchanted creatures first strike. The deck offers you a trio of each, so you can reliably expect to see them in most games.
Outwith the Magemark cycle, you also have a pair of Fists of Ironwood. The Fists offer a floating version of the Bramble Elemental’s special ability, meaning that if you enchant the Elemental with the Fists you’re reaping a Saproling quartet as a harvest. It also gives trample, which is in high demand for your top-of-curve beaters. Finally, the deck’s second rare comes in as a Wurmweaver Coil. This aura gives a huge bonus- +6/+6- and can be cashed in for a 6/6 Wurm token when needs arise.
Unlike many of the other Ravnica-block decks, Gruul Wilding doesn’t carry its uncommon bounce-lands (Gruul Turf). You do get Skarrg, the Rage Pits, however, amongst a raft of basic lands. Overall, it’s hard to say that we’ve been impressed with the deck, given the flaws we’ve identified here. That said, we always try to reserve judgment until we’ve had a chance to play the deck, and so we’ll be heading for the arena to put it through its paces proper. In our next piece, we’ll report on how it fared and give it a final grade!